Humiliation by a resurgent Ospreys was clearly not the sort of exit from Munster that Tony McGahan would have envisaged when he announced his departure for Australia back in February.
With a clean sweep of the Heineken Cup pool stages behind him — the first time a Munster boss had achieved that feat, and a home quarter-final against Ulster to look forward to, McGahan had every right to feel optimistic about how his final season in charge would unfold.
That McGahan’s six-year tenure with Munster, the first two of which he served under Declan Kidney, should come to such an emphatically disappointing end in Wales on Friday night will have left the Queenslander as perplexed as anyone.
Yet McGahan can depart these shores with head held high for while he could not add another Heineken Cup to the two trophies he helped deliver on Kidney’s watch in 2006 and ‘08, he has served successfully as a bridge between Munster’s past and what has the potential to be an equally bright future.
A glance at the two team-sheets accompanying this piece will tell you all you need to know about the change that has been effected by McGahan since he inherited the 2008 European champions. Having been left with a squad that peaked with that summer’s Heineken Cup victory over Toulouse in Cardiff, the Australian has carefully gone about the job of transitioning the playing staff into a new generation of ambitious homegrown talent while keeping a core of experienced winners such as Paul O’Connell, Ronan O’Gara and Doug Howlett on board.
There had to be some darkness before the light, of course, and last season’s failure to reach the Heineken Cup knockout stages for the first time in 13 years followed by the equally depressing Amlin Challenge Cup semi-final home defeat to Harlequins was close to rock bottom.
Yet, even then, Munster finished the season with a well-deserved victory over the newly-crowned European champions Leinster to land their second Magners League title in three seasons. Not too shabby for a team in transition.
New young players such as Conor Murray, Peter O’Mahony and Simon Zebo have been blooded with such success that the first two in that trio have been capped by Ireland while the latter has been involved in national team training squads this season. And in the likes of Stephen Archer, Dave Foley, Ian Nagle, Dave O’Callaghan, Luke O’Dea and Mike Sherry there are more waiting in the wings and ready to grab their opportunities, as this season’s British & Irish Cup success has shown.
Still, the home quarter-final defeat to Ulster this season as well as Friday’s heavy RaboDirect Pro12 semi-final defeat at Ospreys serve as reminders that there is still plenty of work to be done.
That will be the incoming head coach Rob Penney’s job but McGahan is confident the experience his young players have gone through in a season of highs and lows and for some their first tastes of high-stakes knockout rugby, will stand them in very good stead for the years ahead, as will the continuing presence of older, wiser heads.
“I think it will only drive them on,” McGahan said. “You’ve got a committed young group there and experienced guys still around like Ronan, Paul, Doug and Donncha O’Callaghan so that will augur well. You can’t learn it all by yourself and those guys will guide them through it as they have for the last two and a half years.”
How long that process of returning to European rugby’s top table will take, even McGahan is uncertain but he is confident he has left them with a solid foundation for success.
“It’s difficult to say but there’s always a timeline. If you look at a lot of the sides reaching there (to Heineken Cup success), there are a lot of disappointments, a lot of highs and a lot of promising (moments) we’ve had a few over the years.
“It’s difficult to tell but these guys worked through a tough, tough (Heineken Cup) pool, getting to a quarter-final, getting to a (league) semi-final and I think that will stand them in very good stead for next year.”
McGahan will be missed by his players, many of whom, including Keith Earls last week, credit the Australian with giving them their breaks in the Munster starting XV.
“He gave me my chance and he’s tactically one of the best coaches I’ve ever seen, he’s got a great mind for it,” Earls said. “He’s non-stop in terms of work rate.
“He’s there from six in the morning to six or seven at night. He’s going to be a massive loss.
“As a coach he has his ambitions and he’s got a great opportunity to go back home and coach his country, and no doubt in the future he’ll be the top man over there.”
As for McGahan’s success at Munster, the Australian said there was no need to give the incoming Kiwi any pointers.
“Look, Rob doesn’t need any advice from me. He’ll get the job done himself.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved